By Rick Sheek
MURFREESBORO — There were no sour grapes on Cloudland’s part on Thursday night.
After trailing by 16 points late in the third quarter, the Highlanders rallied to take their first lead in the final minute. McEwen, though, regrouped and pulled out a 65-64 decision in the Class A state basketball quarterfinals at Murphy Center.
“We’re not going to blame anything on officiating,” Cloudland coach Brandon Carpenter said. “We could have played better in the first half. The kids know that.
“We had our chances the first half. We didn’t catch any breaks in the second, there in the last minute, but that’s the way the ball bounces.”
Zac Potter converted a three-point play with 28.7 seconds remaining to spur the Highlanders ahead 63-62. Garrett Mullinicks answered as McEwen (31-1) regained the lead.
With 6.2 seconds to go, Cloudland’s Jeffrey Rhinehart was sent to the foul line. He missed the first attempt, and following a timeout nailed the second to knot the affair.
With 2.1 left, Potter was whistled for his fifth foul and Mullinicks sank the front end. He missed the second, but his cousin Patrick Mullinicks came down with the rebound to end the Highlanders’ season and send the Warriors into the semifinals.
“I’m not an official,” Carpenter said. “Those guys get paid, and they’re the ones who make that call.”
The Highlanders (22-13) trailed 49-33 in the final minute of the third period. A 15-3 run brought them within 52-48 on Potter’s move to the basket.
McEwen extended its advantage to six, but eight straight points from Taylor Whitehead tied it at 60-all with 49.2 remaining.
“To be honest, I really didn’t want to be coming back the entire game like that,” Whitehead said. “I’m not really a good 3-point shooter, but I’ll take what I can get. I’m just real disappointed about it.
“We played awful. I just kind of want to go home.”
Potter paced the Highlanders with 20 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds and made three steals.
Whitehead totaled 18 points, 11 boards and two steals.
McEwen got 29 points and seven assists (six turnovers) from Garrett Mullinicks.
“We thought we could wear them down, that they just had one ballhandler, and (Garrett Mullinicks) is a super player,” Carpenter said. “I thought we wore him down, but the bottom line is if we play the first half we win. We didn’t take advantage of a lot of layups we missed, and we’ve got to do a better job.”
Potter tossed in 11 points in the second half, seven in the fourth quarter. Whitehead hit nine in the final period.
“We let our kids play,” Carpenter said. “Taylor and Zac are really good playmakers, and we’ve got confidence in them. We just let them go. They generally make good decisions.”
The Warriors led 11-5 after one quarter. They increased that advantage to 15, before holding a 31-20 halftime lead.
Potter closed the second quarter with a 3-pointer. Cloudland was pounded on the glass before the break 29-12.
“If we play like we were capable of playing the whole game, we wouldn’t be down 16,” Carpenter said. “But, our kids played hard. They kept playing hard, and they stayed with it.
“They’re mentally tough, and a good bunch of kids. I just hate it for our senior, but we’re going to try to learn from it and do better next time.”
The Highlanders shot 50 percent from the floor after intermission, after making just 29 percent of their field goals prior to the break.
The Warriors were 46 percent from the floor, 57 percent in the second half.
“The two things that killed us in the second half was we kept giving up dribble penetration, which got us in foul trouble, and giving up second chances,” McEwen coach Phil Ross said. “They hammered us on the boards the second half.”
Cloudland got eight points and five rebounds from Dylan McClellan. He scored seven in the final quarter.
“We expect to win everytime we play,” Carpenter said. “We knew they were 30-1 coming in, but we didn’t feel like their schedule was that strong. We felt like we should win the game, and we’re disappointed.”
The Highlanders were 19 of 32 at the foul line.
“We’ve had some good games on the free throw line, and we’ve had a few sub-par,” Carpenter said. “A lot of it has to do, I think, with the kids get a little uptight here in this atmosphere. Especially early, we missed a lot of easy shots early that we’re going to make most of the time. It kind of gets you behind the eight ball.”
The Warriors were 15 of 25 on free throws. Patrick Mullinicks totaled 16 points and seven rebounds, while fellow post Cole Andrews muscled his way to eight points and T.J. Long hauled in 10 boards.
“I think our quickness, and they were getting kind of tired,” Carpenter said of the comeback. “We played more kids. Just the style we play kind of wore on them a little, and I just felt like we were a little quicker to the ball than they were.”
Cloudland’s lone senior is Jonathan Hill. He, Mason Carnett and Rhinehart each hit five points.
“We expect to be back here next year, and win, win,” Whitehead said. “We’ve got 10 players coming back. We’ll be back.”
In his second year as coach, Carpenter also leaves Middle Tennessee State one-and-out for the second time. The Highlanders were eliminated on four other occasions at this stage when he was an assistant to Ned Smith.
“We’ve got to play 32 minutes,” Carpenter said. “We talked about 32 minutes all week, and I thought we played about 14 like we’re capable of playing. We took them to the wire.
“If we play 32 minutes, it’s a different game from our standpoint.”